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Music at St Peter's in 2015

Tuesday 31st March, 2015 @ 3:29 pm

by Peter Siepmann | tags: , , , , , ,

Music at St Peter’s 2015

Peter Siepmann

For me and the Choir of St Peter’s, 2015 was a year shaped in particular by the continuing and developing tradition of choir visits.  The year began with Choral Evensong at Ely Cathedral on Saturday 3rd January.  Though something of a challenge due to little rehearsal time and a difficult acoustic, our contribution to the cathedral's pattern of worship was met with positive feedback from both clergy and congregation, and it was lovely to have such a strong 'support team' with us from our own congregation.  In May, the choir enjoyed a wonderful long weekend residency at the extraordinarily beautiful cathedral in Salisbury.  The quality of singing during this inspiring trip was often some of the best I have experienced in my thirteen years at St Peter’s, indeed it feels that (with the invaluable assistance of our excellent team of deputy choristers) a high quality of music is now all but guaranteed during these visits; variety is given instead, I think, by the singers’ collective experience of different places and their associated buildings, acoustics, organ, liturgy, traditions, history, etc., and each member of the choir will have their own favourite destinations.  The ‘top spot’ of my own list was replaced during the choir’s October visit to St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, which was a memorable occasion indeed (not least because as I conducted the choir, one foot rested on the grave of Henry VIII!).


Ely Cathedral, January 2015 (Photo: GM Leuty)

Life-affirming both musically and liturgically though these visits are, of course the principal responsibility of the choir is to the regular opus Dei of St Peter’s.  It was good in the Lent Term to add two new pieces to the choir’s repertoire, Tippett’s Go down, Moses and Tallis’s Salvator mundi.  The upper voices of the choir also learned Disraeli Brown’s fantastic set of accompanied responses.  Holy Week was a particular highlight (despite the disappointment of not being able to field a choir for the Diocesan Chrism Eucharist at Southwell this year), with the choir’s singing of Sanders’ setting of The Reproaches during the stripping of the altars on Maundy Thursday a particularly powerful moment.  It was a delight to welcome Oscars Stämmor - the Voices of Oscars (pronounced “Os-cash”, we learned!) from Stockholm during a weekend in September; this enthusiastic and wonderfully friendly group of singers gave the Saturday morning ‘coffee break’ concert, and joined St Peter’s Choir for the Sunday Eucharist, singing Haydn’s Missa Sancti Johannes de Deo accompanied by our ever-wonderful instrumental ensemble, saraBande.  Further highlights of the church year included a record choral turn out for October Matins (with some thirty singers in the stalls), extracts from Duruflé’s incomparable setting of the Requiem on Remembrance Sunday (with myself at the organ and the choir under the sensitive direction of Richard Ward), a feast of Bach on Advent Sunday, a further addition to the repertoire in MacMillan’s O radiant dawn, and one of the best Christmas Eve carol services I can remember.  Though maintaining a quorate choir for each service from a field of volunteer singers is a continual challenge, one of our deputy choristers was kind enough to suggest that St Peter’s Choir was enjoying a “golden period” at present; writing this report and reflecting upon the activity of 2015, I am tempted to agree.

However, the year also brought great sadness.  Shortly after Easter, we learned of the tragic loss of John & June Lord - both former choristers themselves and exceptionally ardent supporters of the music at St Peter’s.  Their thanksgiving service on 12th May was appropriately memorable, with the size of the choir and the quality of their singing to a full church surely a perfect tribute to the choir’s undisputed number one fans.  Later in the year, members of the choir were also privileged to sing at the Memorial Service for the Reverend Wally Huckle - formerly Workplace Chaplain and latterly faithful member of the church congregation and firm supporter of our musical tradition.


John and June Lord (photo: GM Leuty)

The difficulty in assuring a quorate choir for each service to which I alluded above means that we try to keep more singers ‘on the books’ than we strictly need.  There are currently thirty-five members of St Peter’s Choir (11 sopranos, 8 altos, 7 tenors and 9 basses).  This means that, accepting that all choristers cannot always be present (though many are, and their extraordinary commitment and dedication to the choir is a continual inspiration) we should have at least on each side of the choir for each service. Though this logic only holds during full term time (and crucially remains subject to the wide ability range within our ranks), it is a healthy position in which to find ourselves.

One of the great delights of recent years has been the increasing strength of our links with the University of Nottingham, and during 2015 we were very pleased to welcome to the choir sopranos Rebecca Rimmington and Niamh Corcoran, and bass Tim Stratton.  The ‘critical mass’ of university students and recent alumni now in the choir led this year to the formation of the St Peter’s Scholars, whose debut outing was a performance of Buxtehude’s passiontide cantata Membra Jesu Nostri with saraBande on Palm Sunday.  A subsequent engagement singing for the Friends of Southwell Minster at their Festival Evensong in June was exceptionally well-received, as was a recital of renaissance polyphony at the Voice Box in Derby on 13th October.  The Scholars ended the Michaelmas Term with a performance of Handel Messiah (Part I) again accompanied by saraBande.

We were sorry to say goodbye to students Pippa Grayson and Lucy Whitlock after a relatively short time in the choir, and also to Tim Selman as he moved to be Junior Organ Scholar at St Barnabas RC Cathedral.  We also said a heartfelt farewell to Liz Cresswell who after six years of particularly committed and enthusiastic service to the choir moved to Australia to further her career as a veterinary surgeon.

Results of the worship survey conducted during April 2015 were carefully considered by the St Peter’s Music team.  We were greatly heartened to see that the general message seems to be that the musicians are doing a good job!  To the question "what factors influence your choice of which service to attend?", ‘the music’ was the second most popular response (second only to 'the type of service').  This is a useful reminder of what a responsibility the musicians have.  To the question “what did you like most about this service?”, it was most rewarding to see music and the choir high up in list of most frequent responses.  The balance between choral/congregational participation is, as ever, a hot topic, but in general one that the St Peter’s liturgy balances well (at the Eucharist, for instance, the congregation sing four hymns, a psalm, the Gloria and the Sanctus, whilst the choir sings the Kyrie, Agnus Dei and an anthem at Communion).  There was some concern that the organ was occasionally played too loudly, and this is something over which my organist colleagues and I must take care.  Another oft-raised issue was that of hymn choice.  This is surely a perennial problem in all churches, and arguably an unsolvable one: St Peter’s congregation has a diverse background – one of its great strengths – but that does mean that what is a well-known hymn to some will be unknown to others.  I would like to assure members of the congregation that this is at the forefront of my mind when I choose the hymns for each term; I try to strike a good balance between regular use of well-loved hymns and maintaining a wide and extensive repertoire, indeed I try not to repeat a hymn during the course of a term, which is equivalent to almost one hundred hymns - an impressively sized repertoire of which the congregation should be very proud!  I don’t want our repertoire of hymns to seem stagnant, however, and so every so often will introduce a hymn that I believe might not be as well-known, but one which people may like if it were to become so!  In these cases, I try to only introduce such a hymn when the choir is present, and to repeat it after not too long a time to ‘solidify’ it in people’s minds.  

The Saturday morning 'Coffee Break' Concerts continue to prove a great success and to be very well-received by our large and appreciative audiences.  Proceeds received at the door continue to fund all non-salary running costs of the St Peter’s music department.  In addition to those already mentioned, performances in 2015 included those by the organists of St Peter’s, pianist Ed Hodgkinson, Radcliffe-on-Trent Male Voice Choir, Tempore, Trio Dionysus, Viva Voce, baritone Stephen Cooper, the Newstead Abbey Singers, flautist Wendy Hancock, baritone Geoff Williams, pianist Julia Wallin, singers Susan Jolly, Avalon Summerfield and Maria O'Connell, Essentially Brass, Nottingham Bach Choir as well, of course, as the church’s resident instrumental ensemble, saraBande.

My heartfelt thanks, as ever, go to Keith Charter for his support and advice; to the many and varied concert artists; to the players of saraBande; but most of all to the music team - Michael Leuty, Lee Rooke and Richard Ward for their wise counsel and reassurance as well as their assistance with organ playing and choral direction - and to the singers of the church choir who maintain the weekly round of worship and contribute so much of their time to the vibrant musical life of our parish and City.

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